The megachurch is one of the most recognizable and characteristic religious spaces in the modern United States. Super-sized, consumer oriented, and blandly contemporary, megachurches have become popularly identified with a host of middlebrow American cultural stereotypes. Yet these congregations have proven themselves to be a leading force in the practice of contemporary evangelicalism, their numbers, average size, and evangelistic reach growing dramatically over the past forty years. Building on nearly a century of experimentation, modern megachurches have hit upon a highly successful formula for attracting and retaining attendants. Through a careful calibration of worship style, sermonic messaging, institutional identity, and programming offerings, their market share has swiftly multiplied. As a result, megachurches now dominate the practice of contemporary Protestantism, setting new standards for how a church should look, sound, and feel and establishing the mantra of “church growth” as the widely adopted aim and purpose of modern ministry.
Spatial strategies have been at the core of these growth efforts. Megachurches draw explicitly from the architectural idioms of contemporary shopping malls, corporate complexes, sports arenas, and television studios as a means of making themselves immediately familiar and inviting for the average congregant. They provide a great array of on-site amenities and specialized interiors to appeal to diverse constituencies who may be searching for different attributes in a church home. Choice is therefore incorporated as a spatial principle, permitting attendants to self-design their worship experience and opt in to the level of commitment they feel prepared to offer. Megachurches also typically take an aggressive posture toward their spatial milieus, treating their immediate environs as an active mission field. They regularly deploy lay volunteers to canvass local neighborhoods and encourage members to network on behalf of the church. They encourage the pursuit of new member growth, even if it comes largely from congregational switching rather than recruitment of the “unchurched.” Megachurches thus tend to dominate the religious ecology of their suburban habitats, outcompeting smaller churches for members and money.
Research on the megachurch subculture has primarily been conducted by sociologists and ethnographers, but a bevy of commentary by theologians, ethicists, historians, and journalists has emerged to supplement that social scientific focus and place the megachurch in wider context. Within that growing literature, four lines of inquiry frequently recur: What defines and differentiates the megachurch? What are the historical and cultural sources for its formulation? What explains its rapid rise to prominence in the modern moment? And what does the rise of the megachurch represent for communities of faith, for both insiders and outsiders to the movement? In the round, the varied answers to these interrogations paint a picture of a hotly contested institution, whose definition, origins, and meaning are debatable. Yet there is little doubt that the spatial strategies of megachurches, so frequently admired, imitated, and condemned, can help us address these questions and therefore merit further exploration and understanding.
John C. Blakeman
Issues of church and state are an important element of American religious history and politics. Church–state issues frequently concern the extent of government regulation over religious groups and individuals, and they address fundamental issues, from the constitutional limits on government regulation of religiously inspired conduct to state and local government zoning of religious congregations and property owned and used by religious groups.
Space is often a part of church–state issues. Beginning with early debates over religious liberty in the Puritan colonies in the 1600s, and again during the American Revolution and framing of the U.S. Constitution between 1775 and 1790, spatial conceptions of the proper role between church and state, and between government and religion, are prominent. Two fundamental thinkers on American religious liberty, the Puritan minister Roger Williams and the constitutional framer James Madison, illustrate this dimension of church–state relations.
Disputes over space, church, and state are often resolved by the court system through litigation, or through the political process. Such disputes often stem from government policies and regulations that affect how a congregation or religious group uses its own property. For instance, zoning and other municipal ordinances may affect and burden how a religious group uses its property and even interfere with a group’s religious mission. Religious beliefs may compel a congregation to use its property to engage in charitable works, yet it may be prohibited from doing so due to government regulations on how its property can be used. Or when a congregation seeks to expand its facilities to attract more members, or even build a new worship center elsewhere, it may encounter government policies that regulate its ability to do so.
Other disputes over space arise when government regulation of public property affects a religious group’s use of it. For example, some religious groups stake a sacred claim to land or other space owned by the government. However, government regulations concerning how the land is used might interfere with a group’s ability to act upon its sacred beliefs. In some cases, religious groups may seek to use public property for religious purposes and activities, such as the display of a religious symbol or for proselytizing to the public, and government policies may prevent that in order to avoid violating the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion in the First Amendment.
A final view of space and church–state issues is more conceptual and less grounded in tangible space, land, and property. Some religious groups seek a more abstract, intangible space between them and government regulation. Groups such as the Old Order Amish that seek to separate from the world will erect a buffer space between themselves and government regulation, so as to preserve the purity, and sanctity, of their way of life that is inextricably linked to their specific religious beliefs.
Heath W. Carter
Social Christianity is a heterogeneous tradition that has been cultivated by a diverse array of American Christians who shared in common an intuition that the source of social problems is more exterior than interior to the individual. Social gospelers have contended, in word and in deed, that sin infects not only individuals but also systems and structures; that salvation is not only personal but also societal; and that therefore participation in the struggle for a more just society is, for Christians, not so much optional as essential. This distinctly modern tradition first emerged in the antebellum period, but was overshadowed by older, benevolent, and bourgeois modes of reform until the early 20th century, when it gained a stronger foothold in both the institutional churches and the worlds beyond their walls. Social Christianity’s influence was never more formidable than during the New Deal era. It was during those pivotal decades, which saw the rise of a robust welfare state as well as of massive, faith-infused labor and civil rights movements, that social gospelers left their most lasting mark on American society. In the late 20th century and early 21st centuries, the tradition’s influence would decline precipitously, in no small part due to the success of a multifaceted backlash against social gospel ideas and movements. The rise of the modern right signaled, for social gospelers of all different kinds, a return to the wilderness.
Luther develops a new concept of the Word of God that concentrates on the word and image of Christ. He uses performative images and presence metaphors not only in the field of Christology, but also in the field of creation and consummation. The Word of God and the image of Christ are the only medial possibilities for proclaiming the presence of God with the prevalence of the oral word over the written word (scripture). Christ is understood as the personal Word of God, which can be communicated only through interpersonal mediality and polysemy. The cultural technique of communication makes faith possible (e.g., through the sermon, Lord’s Supper, or baptism). Rhetoric is the effective and affective way to communicate this Word of God.
The rhetoric of the crucified as the imaginative Word of God is the medium that liberates the believer from being entangled with sin, hell, and death. Yet speech cannot be functionalized to become a guaranteed presence of this word—although Christ understands himself as a communicator. At the same time, his word is a rhetorical strategy for coping with the absence of God. The cry at the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) is a verbal expression of the complete Godforsakenness of the crucified. The words on the cross express the radical absence of God. The rhapsodic cry is centered on abandonment. It cannot be whitewashed by ontology or logic. With these words Luther accentuates the negativity of the dead body as a communicative practice. The Word of God (and the word of the Christian) is characterized by polysemy: the word of the resurrection of Christ is gospel. Only this oral word enables the perception of resurrection. In many other dogmatic fields, such as creation, theological anthropology, incarnation, the sacraments, ecclesiology, and eschatology, faith and words belong together because God’s companionship with us is verbal. The iconic and metaphoric character of the word is not a representation of the fourfold sense of scripture, but a unique way to accentuate the performativity and at the same time the polysemy of the Word of God.
In Christianity, theological language must be understood against the background of the multifaceted semantic field of Logos. “Logos” (as “word” and as “linguistic reason”) is used in multiple contexts: (1) Trinitarian theological (John 1:1); (2) creation (Gen. 1:3) and revelation-theological (Jesus Christ “the Word of God” [ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ]: Rev. 19:13); and (3) soteriological-eschatological (“Word of Life,” 1 John 1:1). These references are mediated through the philosophy of language’s concept of “translation” (Johann Georg Hamann) and the idea of divine condescension into human language.
In Luther, religious language as the language of the Bible is to be understood on the one hand by its character as a living address to humankind and on the other as an immediate confession of the believer in spontaneous reaction to it. In biblical language, the Word of God, conveyed in human terms, comes closer to us than we do to our own selves and transforms our earthly existence to the goal of everlasting life.
Theological language is intellectual interpretation and conceptual reflection on religious language with a theoretical aim—in other words, its intent is to reach an agreement about itself under the conditions of the overall context; it concerns the truth of religious language and texts.
Because Luther—linguistically aware to the highest degree—recognized the specific distinctiveness of biblical language, and of New Testament language in particular, his writings contain an abundance of differentiated reflections on the state of appropriate theological language. The Word of God in our human language requires theology to have a “different” or “new” logic (and philosophy) in its articles of faith. All traditional philosophical terms and logical forms of judgment and conclusion must be “translated” into Christianity—even, for example, the concept of the human being and of the Word itself.
In particular, the unity of God and man in Christ compels a new sort of language or way of thinking. The imaginative form of spatial prepositions (such as “in”) must be rethought in determinate negation. In God, opposites coincide.
Because God’s Word is directed against the self-conception of the sinner before God, it comes to humankind essentially in the twin linguistic structure of “Law” and “Gospel”; these categories also define theological language in a specifically Reformation sense.
New Testament language, in its fundamentals, is eschatologically oriented. Hence, categories such as “substance” or “essence” (essentia) must be rephrased on the condition that nothing has already been defined, and everything is still developing. Luther undertook this with an eschatology of the Word of God.
As Luther shows in the case of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “This is my body …,” the new logic is a genuinely linguistic logic, or rather thinking from language. Traditional (formal) logic replaces the logic of real language with an artificial model.
Finally, Luther also reflects on the linguistic status of the word “God” as a grammatical subject. Here, too, he wants the word “God” to be comprehended as a fluid substance, understanding it essentially as a verb—as a linguistic expression of movement—thus embodying the Reformation idea of “for me” (pro me).
Ultimately, it is always about the important role of two linguistic aspects in theological language: grammar on the one hand, which should receive fundamental attention, and linguistic usage (usus loquendi) on the other, the comprehension of which is also crucial. Thus, Luther’s understanding of theological language could be summarized in this statement: theology, understood linguistically, is a grammar of the language of the sacred scriptures.
The article’s starting point is the observation that “scholasticism” cannot simply be taken as a unity, and thus also not Luther’s relationship to it, in spite of his often very general polemics against “the scholastics.” Rather, Luther’s discussion of specific philosophical and theological topics is analyzed, since only such debates have a clearly defined content and allow for arguments that can be examined, as is characteristic for medieval disputations. Thus, the unusual plural “scholasticisms” is used.
Martin Luther was a subject of the Elector of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire. His emergence as a reformer was made possible by the sponsorship he received in Wittenberg. He owed his survival to the protection afforded him by the Elector when Emperor Charles V outlawed him and ordered that the papal ban of excommunication be enforced in the empire. The audience to which Luther appealed was the general population of German Christians, both lay and ecclesiastical, who wanted a reform of the church and the reduction of the pope’s influence over it. That his appeal resonated so widely and so profoundly had much to do with a combination of crises that had developed in the empire from the 15th century. That his reform proposals resulted in the formation of a new church owed everything to the political structures of the empire. These facilitated the suppression of radical challenges to Luther’s position. They also thwarted every effort Charles V made over several decades to ensure that the empire remained Catholic. Lutheranism became entwined with the idea of German liberty; as a result, its survival was secured in the constitution of the empire, first in 1555 and then in 1648.
Throughout his academic life, Martin Luther was in constant discussion with philosophy. He was prepared for this with a substantial study of philosophy at the University of Erfurt, finishing with a master of arts degree. In many parts of Luther’s work, there are explicit discussions of philosophy, in the interpretation of biblical texts and in the definition of theological concepts. Quite early in his theological career, Luther became aware of the problematic dominance of Aristotelian scholastic philosophy in the formation and definition of theological concepts. He was always attempting to develop a clear distinction between philosophy and theology, which freed theology from the concepts of Aristotelian philosophy and from the limits of Aristotelian logic, but the same time respected the significance of philosophy. As Luther preferred clear critique and often used strident language for this, his sometimes polemical critique of philosophy, logic, and “the philosopher” (Aristotle) was often interpreted as a fundamental dismissal of philosophy. Since the late 20th century, research has presented a very different picture of Luther’s understanding of philosophy, of the role and significance he gave to philosophy theoretically and in his practical academic work, and of the relation of Luther’s references to Aristotle and the concrete Aristotelian philosophy in scholasticism, as well as to the relationship between theology and philosophy in general. All this research showed how deeply Luther was rooted in the philosophical discourses and contexts of late scholasticism and involved in the debates of nominalism. But this research also made clear how Luther successfully struggled to come to a very different model of the relationship between theology and philosophy than the models of scholasticism, which secured the independence of both intellectual disciplines despite their close relatedness their relatedness. Luther’s understanding of philosophy and philosophy’s significance for theology is closely related to his concept of reason. Again, there is some polemical critique of reason in Luther’s writings, but in fact Luther had a high appreciation of reason, when reason was in exploring the physical, social, and psychic reality and in shaping the natural, social, and moral world. Luther was critical and polemical toward reason when it was used in matters of faith. But although the use of reason in theology had its limits, it was nevertheless indispensable in theological work. This was especially clear in Luther’s hermeneutics, as reason was the means to come to the external clarity of biblical texts in the process of interpretation.
Martin Luther used the practice and notion of promise for theological and practical ends. As a theological notion, promise allowed Luther to work through important problems about God and God’s actions in Christ. Practically, Luther employed promise to understand sacraments, human action, and interpretation of the Bible.
What unites these two ends is Luther’s taking promise as a gift of God, albeit a gift difficult to categorize according to the taxonomy of gifts in cultural anthropology. God’s promise is an effective word (verbum efficax), a speech act that does what it says. In other places of Luther’s work, promise denotes an action that priests and ministers undertake in order to communicate God’s word. He used it to articulate Christ’s activity in the Eucharist. Faith can mean many things in Luther’s work, but he frequently sees it as the correlate of promise. This shows that Luther follows the practical use of promise and fidelity in the Stoic tradition in addition to his interpretation of the Bible and his theological heritage. Luther considers promise to point to something God will do in the future or that promise limits God’s power in a way that makes that promise trustworthy. When compared to a “last will and testament,” it signifies a gift to those designated as heirs. In sum, not only does promise offer practical aims for the activity of the church; it also limits and generates theological reflection on God. For Luther, “God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with [human beings] other than through the word of promise” (De captivitae babylonica (1520) WA 6:516, 30–33; LW 36:42, translation modified).
Derek R. Nelson
So much is known about Martin Luther, and the stakes of telling his story have been perceived to be so high, that an astonishing variety of presentations of his life have been offered. Some of his earliest opponents sought to discredit and vilify Luther by highlighting and in some cases fabricating shameful details about his life. His collaborators and sympathizers came to his defense. With similar one-sidedness, they inaugurated a long tradition of Luther hagiography. The man who did much to diminish the role that devotion to the saints played in the piety of Christianity came to function much like a Protestant saint. Miracles, such as his portrait not burning up in house fires, even came to be attributed to him.
As the process of confessionalization took place, subsequent generations told the Luther story as one of divine intervention in history. The monastic theologian became an evangelical prophet as well as a “national” hero. For Roman Catholics, Luther became the quintessential heresiarch, because the spate of divisions emerging from medieval Christendom were thought to be attributed to him, and thus any attempt to characterize and caricature him could be justified by appealing to the urgency to refute him. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century biographies of Luther display evidence of the growing sensitivity to objective historical scrutiny but maintained their confessional biases. Protestants in their 20th-century portrayals tend to exemplify the dominant philosophical and methodological interests of biographers: existentialists see an existentialist Luther, psychoanalysts see a manic-depressive Luther, and so on.
Portrayals of Luther come in other media, as well. Stage adaptations and numerous films show a tormented, angst-ridden soul who faces his pain with sometimes heroic resolve. And Luther becomes a wax nose, easily bent for organizers’ agendas, when he is depicted and contextualized in various anniversaries of his life, death, and Reformation.